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Argentina: The Last Cycle of Political Violence
Overview
These works represent a first attempt at periodization of the political violence marking Argentina’s recent past. They depict a cycle which began in the 1960s and 1970s when violence became an accepted, even legitimate way to settle conflicts, obtain benefits, or promote social change. The subsequent Process (1976 - 1983) is a stage in which the military junta made violence their way of governing. A final stage opened with the return of democracy in 1983, when, as Luis Alberto Romero writes in his work, “Political Violence in Twentieth Century Argentina: a Critical Review of the Literature” (Spanish version), the Argentine people rejected political violence and initiated a process of critical examination which still continues today.

In his thorough analytical overview of the available literature, Romero locates and interprets the brutality of the Process within a much longer trajectory of political violence in Argentina, one that covers, grosso modo, the second half of the 20th century.

“Usually,” he writes,

the illegal and clandestine repression carried out by the State between 1976 and 1983 during the recent military dictatorship, the self-proclaimed Process of National Reorganization […] (“the Process”), is the central event in Argentina’s political violence in the 20th century. In my view, this episode is inseparable from the immediately prior period between 1969 and 1976, in which the use of political violence became normal and, in a certain way, accepted by much of society. […] One must examine the processes […] through which this violent normality was constituted, particularly what occurred at the end of the Peronist government in 1955, although some general characteristics of 20th century political experience will also be considered. […] I will [also] examine the years after 1976: the end of the military dictatorship brought a profoundly critical social examination of violence, accompanied by a processing of that experience, still unfinished.
In interpreting past events the historian has the advantage of being able to draw from accounts and explanations by social scientists and investigative journalists – that is, work done close to events, reflecting how they were understood at that time. Rather than treating such works as the verified record of what actually occurred, Romero proposes that we examine them for potential insights and suggestive hypotheses. Empirical analysis, he points out, was not their strength, but the fact that they wrote within the perspectives of their times makes them of unique value to the historian: their explanatory schemes allow us to reconstruct the Weltanschauung of an era, and their contemporary notes occasionally permit us to comprehend part of their life experience.

“Mobilization and Politicization: Lawyers in Buenos Aires between 1968 and 1973” (Spanish version) by Mauricio Chama, demonstrates how a generally conservative profession took part in the cultural modernization and political radicalization that swept Argentine society in the 1960s. A whole generation within the urban middle classes came to see their professions not as affirmations of their social status but rather as the means to change society. Law students motivated by the belief that lawyers should promote social justice are a prominent example.

This research in historical sociology lies at the crux of professional and political issues. It is similar to the author’s excellent work on another profession that occupied an equally significant place in the period, psychologists and psychiatrists.

The author reconstructs the path traveled by young lawyers of the Argentine capital to conceiving their vocation as a revolutionary commitment. The study focuses on a period before the Process, particularly 1968 - 1973, when a series of military governments mismanaged the economy but also freely used political repression – creating a National Security Council and proclaiming an “Anti-communist Law.” Their rule was met by social resistance throughout the country, led by a revitalized trade unionism. Two guerrilla organizations started in the early 1960s – the Peronist Montoneros and the Trotskyite Revolutionary People’s Army (ERP) – were a growing presence, seen in growing acts of violence between 1970 and 1973. The General Confederation of Argentine Workers (CGTA) became the most active front of opposition to the government of General Onganía, bringing together workers, intellectuals and professionals as it gained broader social support. The government responded to agitation with repression, leading to the arrest of countless political, union and student leaders and activists, whose defense was taken up by lawyers associated with the CGTA.

This first experience as defense lawyers (1969 - 1970) led to creation of a national network of lawyers determined to use their professional skills in a committed way. “The lawyers,” writes the author, “constructed their identity as part of what was called the ‘popular, national and revolutionary camp.’” These CGTA lawyers defended, among others, members of the guerrilla groups, which did not trust the old defense organizations (such as those close to the Communist Party), which they considered “reformist.” As Chama analyzes, “A complex political juncture characterized by a deterioration of the institutional channels of expression […] created the conditions in which the defense of the first armed groups was accompanied by the acceptance of violence as a legitimate way to confront the military regime.”

The author delineates a second phase from early 1971 to the end of 1973, which saw formation of a true opposition front against the military dictatorship, the Gremial (Union Association of Attorneys). For a time the Gremial united the diverse political traditions of the Argentine left around the defense of victims of state repression. This broke down, however, when Peronist lawyers (a majority within the Gremial) sought to convert all its members into “organic” lawyers that would not only defend the detained but also assist them as members of the armed groups. This effort to associate the whole membership of the Gremial more directly with the revolutionary organizations was resisted by those who embraced the practice of law as their primary professional identity. After this the days of the Gremial were counted.

In “The Argentine Church in the Last Military Dictatorship. Terror Unfurled over the Catholic Camp (1976-1983)” (Spanish version), Martín Obregón brings fresh historical insights to what he regards as the superficial prevailing view of the Church’s role during the Process. It is true, he writes, that “large sectors of the Catholic hierarchy supported the military regime between 1976 and 1983 by adopting an extremely moderate stance toward the systematic violation of human rights perpetrated by the armed forces. However, the widespread image of the Church as an ‘accomplice’ during the military dictatorship has sometimes conspired against a more profound analysis, thereby favoring simplifications and schematic discourse.” What the conventional wisdom does not examine is precisely the focus of Obregón’s work: the ways in which clerics, including a few bishops and several religious women, attempted to come to grips with political repression and suffered from it themselves.

The hypothesis of this paper is that far from constituting a homogenous and monolithic block during the Process, the Catholic Church was rent by strong internal debates related to different theological and pastoral conceptions as well as different positions toward the military government. This internal crisis, which tore the Argentine Church apart from the time of the Second Vatican Council, had deepened at the end of the decade of the 1960s and surfaced dramatically in the first years of the Process. The existence in the heart of the institution of military chaplains who spiritually comforted the torturers in the dictatorship’s concentration camps on the one hand, and on the other, the hundreds of priests, members of religious orders, and lay people that ended up on the list of victims of illegal repression speaks quite clearly about the complexity of the problem and the depth of the internal crisis.

This paper, later developed in Entre la cruz y la espada. La Iglesia Católica durante los primeros años del ‘Proceso’ [Between the Cross and the Sword. The Catholic Church in the First Years of the ‘Process’] (Buenos Aires: Universidad Nacional de Quilmes, 2005), reconsiders Church attitudes toward the military regime, based on a close reading of the different currents within the institution and the incidents in which they were expressed. This kind of reading has never been done before, and there is a reason for this: even today the closed and opaque character of the institutional Church makes it is difficult to gather information about what happened within it 30 years ago.

Obregón maps out the different positions of bishops within the episcopal assembly and analyzes the dynamics of their interaction. Defending human life could have led the Church to denounce repression, he argues, but conservative elements within the bishops shrank from forthright condemnation for fear of strengthening progressive positions among them. What mattered to the conservatives above all, he argues, was maintaining control of the institution – which was in their eyes besieged by priests and members of religious orders whose post-Conciliar views of the Church seemed to them indistinguishable from political subversion. Obregón concludes by explaining how the bishops’ official position evolved, as of 1981, towards a middle-of-the-road recognition of all that had happened.

At the heart of Carlos Acuña’s and Catalina Smulovitz’s work, “The Military in the Argentine Transition: from Government to Constitutional Subordination” (Spanish version), is the question that soon became a central issue in the democratic transition: what to do with the past violations of fundamental human rights? As the authors point out, the military regime left a legacy that its successor democracy had to address in the form of a “self amnesty” law granting immunity to those suspected of terrorist acts and to all the members of the armed forces for crimes committed between 25 May 1973 and 17 June 1982. Acuña and Smulovitz distinguish three main players involved with the issues of human rights – the Executive Power, the Armed Forces, and the human rights organizations – and focus particularly on the military. They analyze the diverse fears and expectations, respective strategies and room for maneuver of all three through the prism of confrontations and decisions that marked the first years of democracy.

“The objective of our work,” the authors write,

is to analyze the reasons that explain the particular dynamics that took place in the political fight linked to human rights and civic-military tension in the case of Argentina from the military coup in 1976 to the present. Using the premise of strategic analysis, this work explains why the actors did what they did, what factors determined their political behavior, and how and why these different behaviors combined to determine the process of the political battles, as well as what this process means for the success or failure of consolidating democracy in Argentina.
Acuña and Smulovitz wrote “The Military in the Argentine Transition” at the beginning of the 1990s, during the second government of the transition. President Carlos Menem (elected 1989) attempted to solve the military unrest by giving pardons to convicted members of both the armed forces and of the guerrilla groups. In this context the questions the authors set out were not purely rhetorical:

Argentine politics presents us, as of February 1991, a military actor that is apparently obedient and subordinate to civil power. Is this a short-term phenomenon that will change as soon as the victorious military sector regroups from the recent convulsions […]? In this complex process of fighting, marches, and countermarches, what is in store for the future of democracy in Argentina? Were the trials of the military personnel responsible for the systematic violation of human rights “too much” of an ethical gesture for the risky conditions in the democratic transition?
Acuña y Smulovitz gave an initial answer to these questions in their conclusion: justice was achieved by convicting some of those responsible, which allowed Menem to take the initiative with a pardon.

Once punishment existed, the pardon would minimize the costs imposed but would not equal the situation in those cases in which a law “to forget” or of anticipated amnesty can foreclose investigation and judgment altogether. Because of this, one of the central reasons explaining military subordination of the constitutional power is that investigation and judicial conviction for human rights crimes would imply an extremely high threat and cost for the Armed Forces, despite the series of concessions begun by the former government and completed by the pardon granted by the present government.
Acuña and Smulovitz are usefully synthesized by Luis Alberto Romero in “Political Violence in Twentieth Century Argentina”:

This history – in terms of rational actors, the maximum objectives of each, the negotiations, and an unsatisfactory outcome for all – contemplates the interests of each at one point in its development. The human rights organizations wanted trial and punishment for the guilty; the military wished “to turn the page” following the terms of the amnesty; Alfonsín’s government aimed at an intermediate solution: judicial action that would distinguish different levels of responsibility (those who gave the orders, those who followed them, and those who exceeded them) and that would be taken by military courts. But when the military rejected the latter possibility, criminal law was reformed to allow federal legal intervention. Thus the Justice system became a new actor. After the conviction of the high command (on grounds the human rights organizations considered too benign), the road was left open for new trials. From then on, the courts acted, or not, according to the political moment. In the face of this judicial offensive, a group arose in the army, the “carapintadas” [literally “painted faces,” referring to the camouflage of warriors ready for battle], that demanded a “political solution” – much of which was obtained with the 1987 law of due obedience. Their internal struggle to control the army ended was ended with their suppression in 1990. None of actors [the Executive Power, the Armed Forces, and the human rights organizations] came out as the definitive winner. The outcome, considering the situation around 1990, included at least some of the goals each had sought: the criminal behavior of the State was established, the main leaders of the Proceso were brought before the court, and the military’s subordination to civil power was achieved.
Federico Lorenz is one of the first historians to carefully examine the initial stage of the Argentine transition. “Witnesses of the Defeat. Malvinas: Soldiers and War in the Argentine Transition to Democracy, 1982-1987” (Spanish version) deals with the war over the remote islands in the southern Atlantic (called the “Malvinas” by the Argentines and the “Falklands” by the British) that led to the downfall of the military regime and a transition to elected government. Lorenz examines public representations of the war centered on the soldiers – first as the conflict took place (April – June 1982), then after the Argentine defeat, and finally when the war became an active presence in national memory during the first years of the democratically elected Alfonsín government.

During the conflict the declarations of soldiers’ parents and the more or less fictitious stories printed in newspapers and magazines all expressed solidarity with the draftees, “the boys [chicos] in the war.” For the public that massively supported the war, these were anonymous heroes that came from towns across the county to defend the sacred soil of the homeland. The defeat turned them into victims in the public’s eye, victims of the insanity and incompetence of the military leaders. When the crimes of the military juntas were broadcast during the trials, these leaders were blamed for the nation’s defeat in the Malvinas and with it, the plight of the chicos.
In this context, the boys, by now veterans, made their voices heard. But Lorenz shows that Argentina’s political evolution after the CONADEP truth commission report (1984) and the trial of the military juntas (1985) made it difficult for the ex-combatants to take the place they felt they deserved in Argentina’s collective memory. Their demands for reparations were pushed aside. Malvinas veterans and their organizations were marginalized and their message – we have fulfilled our duty and did our country proud – was largely lost. Public opinion focused on the atrocities of internal military repression and tended to avoid anything that harked back to the military or the Process.

Lorenz writes, “The groups of ex-combatants developed a discourse that attempted to mark a difference between the military responsible for repression and the causes of the Malvinas conflict,” between the violation of human rights on one hand and the commitment of the young soldiers on the other.

But this intent ran smack up against the broader social view that strongly condemned the military experience […]. In their desire to distance themselves from the repressive military, the groups themselves initially contributed to spreading a view of the inefficiency of the leadership they had suffered under. But […] there was a contradiction between the passive role assigned the veterans in stories about the Malvinas and the “agency” they claimed in their discourse as a social group (the self-proclaimed “generation of the Malvinas”) – and for this they paid a price.
Lorenz’s work, expanded into a book (Las Guerras por Malvinas [The Wars for the Falkland Islands]. Buenos Aires: Edhasa, 2006) is also a reflection on the reaction of society to the Falklands conflict and the human cost of the internal “dirty war,” memories of which seem indigestible. His analysis evokes the life experiences of Russian soldiers of the same era fighting a different kind of “dirty war” in Afghanistan. “They promised that our country would never forget us. Today, when they see us, they look the other way,” says one of the veterans Svetlana Alexievich heard in Les Cercueils de zinc (French translation, Paris: C. Bourgois, 2002).

At the beginning of “Conflicts of Memory in Argentina. A Historical Study of Social Memory” (Spanish version) Hugo Vezzetti writes that, with the advent of democracy, “a new regime of memory was born, understood as a relation to and public action on the past.” This memory reflected a broad consensus that condemned human rights violations. Its touchstones were to be found in Nunca más, the compact report of the CONADEP truth commission, and the revelations in the trials of the military juntas; there were no heroes, only victims. The stories that condensed the past for Argentine society in 1984 were framed in different ways. There were “ideological, even factional, memories of groups that reaffirmed their past identities and affiliations”; some that appealed to the history of the “anti-subversive war” of the dictatorship; and others, with variations, that validated the combative history of the revolutionary adventure of the 1960s and early 70s. Vezzetti outlines the history of these representations in Pasado y presente: guerra, dictadura y sociedad en la Argentina [Past and Present: War, Dictatorship and Society in Argentina] (Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, 2002).

As with several other works in this section, Vezzetti starts with the decade of the 1960s: a time when the conception of national history as a common past broke apart. In these years of political radicalization, with their focus on constructing the new man and the new society, the past was referred to as “ideology” rather than “memory,” Vezzetti notes. Of the scenes of fighting and resistance, the narratives of combats and combatants that were rescued from the past, the author writes:

In this formation of ideas, images and schemes of action, the mythical revolution subverted traditions and historical experiences and produced a formidable reorientation toward the future. The revolutionary myth imposed […] a sweeping denunciation of the past, which included impugning a former elite that was to be liquidated. In this eschatological vision, all that should remain of the past could be summed up in the figures of the suffering and the exploitation of the people: the hungry, the homeless, the destitute
The circular journey in time the author invites us on returns, in fine, to the social memory born out of democracy. Here Vezzetti observes something that is still in the making: a search for positive images – law and the State – on which the bases of society can be consolidated while the essentialist narratives and the identities defined by confrontation dissolve. The author shows that at the time of the Malvinas War in the final stage of the Process this redefining of social memory still appeared ambiguous. When the military regime tried to use the external war to legitimate its internal “anti-subversive” war – calling upon the country’s nationalistic imagination and the heroes in uniform to help them achieve this goal – they were defeated, as they were in the cold waters of the South Atlantic. But as Vezzetti points out, “The same cannot be said for the explosion of patriotic memory that broke out in the Malvinas adventure.”

The almost unanimous nationalistic euphoria that went with what seemed to be (and what people wanted to believe would be) a victorious war revealed as few events could the force of this mythic power that cuts across ideologies and experiences: an essential nationalism founded on a sacred view of territory […]. The ability to stir up and mobilize the most diverse sectors in the political spectrum, from the extreme right to the extreme left, revealed deep and obscure strata of a memory […] available to different undertakings.


Translation by Lea Fletcher
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